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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (compita praemisit)

Vonda McIntyre – 1948-2019

Vonda McIntyre died in April 2019. Shortly after her death, a book called Remembering Vonda  edited by Stephanie Smith and Jeanne Gomall was published by Union Street Press. It’s a collection of essays and photographs and general memorabilia about Vonda, her life and her works. I confess that I read it with a little bit of a tear in my eye. Vonda was a guest of honour at an SF convention in New Zealand in 1995. I was on the committee that organised that convention and so I came into contact with her quite a lot. Since I learned of her death, I too have been remembering Vonda…

I took her to Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium. We wandered through plexiglass tunnels where sharks, and rays and a multitude of other sea creatures swam all around and above us, eyeing us as eagerly as we were eyeing them; possibly with similar motives on both sides. Vonda was entranced, exclaiming with delight as particularly toothy specimens swam up close to snarl at her and then dart away again into the murky depths.

Then we went into the Antarctic enclosure where we were promised penguins. And that’s exactly what we got, but we got something else as well – just inside the entrance a huge orca loomed intermittently out of a tiny pool, startling penguins and visitors alike.

Vonda was absolutely furious! "How dare they treat an orca like that," she declared, red faced and angry. "You can’t imprison such a large animal in such a small enclosure. And you shouldn’t have orca in captivity in any case! Where’s someone in charge? We’ve got to do something about it!"

In high dudgeon, she stalked closer to the orca, intent on committing who knows what mayhem. And then she started to laugh as she discovered what I already knew, but hadn’t told her because I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. The orca wasn’t a real orca. It was an animatronic model of an orca. Vonda was vastly amused to discover how thoroughly she’d been fooled by it, and she was full of admiration at the skill with which the model had been made. She thought it was the best joke ever. We settled back to enjoy the penguins. It had been a very successful day.

On another occasion we went to explore the city of Auckland. In the centre of the city is a crossroads. We arrived at the crossroads just as the lights changed and a multitude of pedestrians started to cross the intersection. Vonda was mesmerised by the spectacle. "Is it allowed to cross diagonally?" she asked me as we watched crowds of people doing exactly that. "If I did that at home I’d be arrested for jaywalking!"

"Not only is it allowed," I explained, "it’s actually required! The lights halt the traffic in all four directions at once. No vehicles can get through at all, and pedestrians can cross in any direction that represents the shortest distance connecting the two points they want to travel between."

"What a clever idea," said Vonda admiringly. "Can we try it? Please?"

We waited until the lights went red again. Traffic on all four approach roads halted politely, and the pedestrians began to cross. We arrived safely at the other end of our diagonal and Vonda was positively bubbling with excitement. "That was fun," she said gleefully. "I’ve never done that before. Can we do it again?"

We waited through a whole traffic light cycle, crossed diagonally again and then we resumed walking in the direction we’d been heading before we got side-tracked by the traffic lights. Once again, it had been a very successful day.

Eventually Vonda went back home and probably she never walked diagonally across a crossroads again for the rest of her life. I’m very glad that I was able to give her that small adventure.

We kept in touch intermittently. Perhaps a dozen emails over a dozen years about this, that or the other. It was not a voluminous correspondence and neither was it a very important one. But whenever I dropped her a line she always remembered who I was and she always responded warmly. I remember her very fondly indeed.

* * * *

I’ve been reading some more of Nathan Lowell’s novels in The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper  series. The novels Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share complete a story arc. As the titles suggest, we follow our protagonist as he ascends the hierarchy of a merchant shipping line of the future that moves cargoes from star system to star system. The trading makes him richer and more powerful as he takes each step along the way to fortune and, eventually to fame. These novels do contain rather more plot than the first two (fairly plotless) novels did. Nevertheless a significantly large part of every book still consists of characters just talking among themselves about everyday things as they eat and drink and go about their routine day to day lives. And it is through these conversations that we get to know them and to understand them and, generally speaking, to like them. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that I was genuinely upset at what happens to one of the major characters towards the end of the last novel.

I have absolutely no idea how Nathan Lowell has managed to make such mundane books so interesting and involving, but he has. I simply couldn’t put them down.

Short Range is Stephen Leather’s sixteenth Spider Shepherd novel and it’s clear that he’s getting rather tired of churning them out. As always Leather has been paying close attention to the news headlines of the day, and this novel, like all his others, demonstrates an acute awareness of contemporary concerns. So one of the story threads concerns the activities of a far right political group. There’s also a rather interesting thread about MI5 recruiting a teenager to infiltrate a drug cartel – the teenager is already being used as a mule by the drug dealers, so it’s not as though MI5 are deliberately setting out to corrupt teenagers. Nevertheless, Spider does not approve and when his own son Liam falls foul of a Serbian gangster, he can’t help drawing disturbing parallels…

It’s not that bad a book really, and it certainly held my interest right to the end. Nevertheless, it’s a very short novel (I think it’s probably the shortest novel that Stephen Leather has ever written) and it’s full of routine action set-pieces. Both of these things are the reasons why I suspect that Leather has only written the book because his contract says that he has to.

Elly Griffiths has written a series of novels about Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who specialises in the analysis of bones. I’ve become quite addicted to the books, mainly because I find Ruth and her friends to be very convincing characters and I really want to know what happens in their lives.

The novels are not without flaws – they are all somewhat formulaic in the sense that the police discover some bones, Ruth gives her considered opinion as to the the nature and origin of the bones (sometimes they are ancient, sometimes they are modern), a crime is uncovered and Ruth comes under threat from the criminal. She is rescued at the last minute and they all live happily ever after until the next book.

I do find it a little odd that Elly Griffiths has chosen to write about something as scientifically complex as forensic archaeology since it is very clear from the text that she herself has little or no scientific training or knowledge. She is completely out of her depth when it comes to the nuts and bolts of scientific thinking. Mostly the mistakes she makes are minor and, generally speaking, I was happy just to wince a little and then move on. But in one novel a major character succumbs to a viral infection and everybody is very worried because the infection doesn’t respond to antibiotics. Even the doctors find this concerning. That is such an egregious mis-statement of the way things actually work that it completely broke the reading spell for me and it bounced me right out of the story. It was at least a couple of hours before I felt able to return to reading it.

So why are the stories so gripping? What keeps me coming back for more? Why do their virtues outweigh their flaws? Ruth is a beautifully drawn and well realised character who grows and changes as the events of the stories unfold. I found myself genuinely interested the progress her life was taking. The plots are ingenious, stuffed full of fascinating insights both ancient and modern, and the Norfolk countryside where the events (mostly) take place is so well described and so well invoked that it might almost be a character in its own right! There really is much to admire about these fascinating novels, as long as you can find it in your heart to forgive the occasional scientific solecisms.

True Crime  and The Million Dollar Wound conclude what the author, Max Allan Collins, refers to as the "Frank Nitti trilogy", even though the actual hero of the novels is the private detective Nathan Heller (I reviewed True Detective, the first volume of the trilogy, last month). Nitti, of course, was Al Capone’s trusted lieutenant and he took over the running of Capone’s criminal empire after Capone went to jail. In all three novels of the trilogy, Nitti is the éminence grise behind all the events; he is the puppet master pulling the strings of the characters as they work their way through the complex plot.

In True Crime, Heller finds himself involved in the hunt for, and the eventual killing of, John Dillinger, and he also has a confrontation with the infamous Barker gang. Organised gangsters such as the Chicago outfit run by Frank Nitti had an ambivalent attitude towards the independent outlaws like Dillinger and the Barkers. On the one hand, they admired the outlaws for their freewheeling lifestyle but on the other hand they found the outlaws to be a damned nuisance. Dillinger and the Barkers committed spectacular one-off crimes such as bank robberies and kidnappings. These high profile crimes attracted far too much attention from the forces of law and order and that tended to interfere with the much less spectacular, much more low-key crimes that the larger outfits like Nitti’s specialised in – day after day, month after month, year after year, Nitti’s organisation took their cut from liquor sales and prostitution, gambling, and union fees, generating a steady flow of funds into the organisation’s coffers. They didn’t like seeing this revenue stream interrupted by the flashy, independent outlaws. And so Heller finds himself involved in Nitti’s Machiavellian scheme to bring Dillinger and the Barker gang to heel.

As always, Collins has mixed a lot of factual history involving real people and real contemporary scandals and controversies into his story. And he’s done it so cleverly this time that you simply cannot see the joins. It’s impossible to tell where history ends and story begins.

True Crime was originally published in the mid 1980s. But it’s subject matter has an unexpected resonance with the world of 2019. It was recently announced that Dillinger’s family have undertaken to exhume Dillinger’s body and, using DNA analysis, they will try to settle once and for all the question of whether or not the man buried there, the man who was shot outside the Biograph Theatre in 1934, really was John Dillinger. And if you want to know why there could be any doubt as to the identity of the corpse that was buried in Dillinger’s grave, you could do a lot worse than to read True Crime by Max Allan Collins.

The Million-Dollar Wound, the last volume of the Frank Nitti trilogy ends, not surprisingly, with Nitti’s death. This time Heller finds himself involved in organised crime’s attempts to get on the gravy train that is Hollywood. They want to infiltrate and take over the running of the Hollywood unions.

While it is undoubtedly a strong novel, it was my least favourite of the trilogy. Partly this was because the focus of the novel is on the rather dull politics that lie behind Nitti’s interest in the Hollywood unions, partly it was because I’ve never heard of most of the people involved in the story (the first two novels were stuffed to overflowing with famous household names) and partly it was because far too much of the early sections of the novel describe Heller’s duty as a marine fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the second world war. The combat has a shattering effect on Heller which in turn has ramifications when he returns to civilian life and is drawn back into Frank Nitti’s shady world. Nevertheless I felt that too much space was devoted to Heller’s army service, to the detriment of the main focus of the story. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the novel – I enjoyed it a lot. Collins hasn’t lost any of his skill at blending fact with fiction. Nevertheless, I felt it was the weakest of the three books.

Neon Mirage is a stand alone novel that focuses on Ben "Bugsy" Siegel’s vision that transformed the quiet, dusty, desert town of Las Vegas into the glitering, fashionable and (it goes without saying) astonishingly corrupt, gambling paradise that it is today. Despite Siegel’s mob history, Heller rather likes him, finding him personable and persuasive.

The book is the mixture as before – historical fiction mixed into a complex plot that explains, to a certain extent at least, the ambiguities and uncertainties that suround what seem at first glance to be well understood events. In Max Allan Collins’ eyes at least, there is always a lot of wiggle room for him to play with. As always, the end result is a fascinating and very gripping story.

By the end of Neon Mirage we have reached 1946. However the next book in the series (assuming you read them in order of publication as I am doing) takes us back to 1932 and describes Nathan Heller’s involvement in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case. I am greatly looking forward to reading it...

Stephanie Smith and Jeanne Gomall Remembering Vonda Union Street Press
Nathan Lowell Full Share Ridan
Nathan Lowell Double Share Ridan
Nathan Lowell Captain's Share Ridan
Nathan Lowell Owner's Share Ridan
Stephen Leather Short Range Hodder & Stoughton
Elly Griffiths The Crossing Place Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Elly Griffiths The Janus Stone Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Elly Griffiths The House at Sea’s End Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Elly Griffiths A Room Full of Bones Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Max Allan Collins True Crime St.Martins Press
Max Allan Collins The Million Dollar Wound St.Martins Press
Max Allan Collins Neon Mirage Random House
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